Growing numbers of children in the United States are living with a grandparent. In 2010, about one in 14 U.S. children (7 percent) lived in a household headed by a grandparent—for a total of 5.4 million children, up from 4.7 million in 2005.1 These grandparent-headed households have helped fuel the rise in multigenerational households, a category that includes households with and without minor children.2
In fact, over the past 40 years, the share of U.S. children living in a grandparent’s household has climbed steadily, more than doubling from 3 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in 2010.3 Researchers noted spikes in the number of children living with grandparents that coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s and the recent “Great Recession” between 2007 and 2009.4 In 2010, more than half of children (54 percent) who were living with grandparents were being raised mainly by a grandparent who reported having primary responsibility for most of the child’s basic needs. The numbers of children with grandparents as their main care providers grew from 2.5 million in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2010, a 16 percent increase over the decade.
Grandparents who open their homes to their grandchildren are often divided into two types of households—three-generational and skipped-generation—reflecting different family situations, needs, and concerns, explained Gregory C. Smith, a Kent State University researcher.
Three-generation households include grandparents, adult children, and grandchildren. These households tend to form in response to financial difficulties, illness, divorce, adolescent childbearing, and in some instances, out of the grandparents’ desire to help their children and grandchildren. In a September 2011 national survey by the nonprofit Generations United, multigenerational household members (including those in three-generation households) cited unemployment and underemployment, health care costs, and home foreclosure among the top reasons for moving in together.5
By contrast, skipped-generation or custodial grandparent households are made up of grandparents and grandchildren only, and are frequently the result of the grandchild’s parents’ substance abuse but also incarceration, death, mental illness, or child neglect, reported Smith. Often a grandparent will take in a grandchild to prevent the child from being placed in foster care; and state welfare agencies have actively sought out grandparents to raise children whose parents could no longer do so.
In 2010, about 920,000 children were being raised by grandparents with no parent living in the home. This number declined slightly, however, from 960,000 in 2005. Compared with all children cared for by grandparents, children raised by custodial grandparents are more likely to have a disability, be teenagers, and have family income below the poverty line.6
Although fewer than one in three children supported by their grandparents have no parent in the household, they are a focus of growing concern. Difficult family circumstances often lead to custodial grandparent care, and custodial grandchildren have higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems than children in the overall U.S. population, according to a study Smith conducted with support from the National Institute of Mental Health.7
In particular, grandmothers reported that boys presented many more difficulties than girls. “Boys are more likely than girls to have externalizing behavior problems—their emotional and behavioral difficulties are expressed outwardly in the form of misconduct or acting out,” explained Smith. “Girls are more likely to have internalizing problems, where they channel their difficulties inwardly by being anxious, fearful, or depressed.”
Among adolescents living with custodial grandparents, Laura Pittman, a researcher at Northern Illinois University, also found more emotional and behavioral problems than among other low-income, urban youth living in other family configurations.8 She pointed to two possible reasons: “Grandparents are aging and may be struggling with monitoring and setting limits on these children,” she said. “Additionally, adolescence is a time of growing awareness of one’s own identity—recognizing that their parents are no longer available to them may lead to questioning their own value as a person, leading to depression or getting involved in delinquent activity.”
In another study, she found very young children (about ages 2 to 6) raised by custodial grandparents were similar to other children in emotional functioning, but lagged behind their peers in developing academic skills.9 For preschoolers, a caring adult attending to their needs can help avert problem behaviors as well as anxiety and depression, she said.
Along with their grandchildren’s emotional and behavioral problems, “custodial grandparents face a wide array of stressors including strained relationships with birth parents, social stigma, financial pressure, and their own increasing aging-related health concerns,” Smith said. Despite these challenges, many grandparents do enjoy raising a grandchild, he said. Some of these grandchildren end up doing extremely well in their grandparent’s care.
To find the best ways to enable children in their grandparents’ care to thrive, Project C.O.P.E. (Caring for Others as a Positive Experience) recently began recruiting custodial grandmothers for support groups and training to improve parenting and coping skills. This $2.5 million, National Institutes of Health-funded study will involve more than 500 grandmothers in California, Ohio, Maryland, and Texas. Studies show that a caregiver in even moderate distress can have an impact on a child’s adjustment, according to Smith, who is also one of the project’s co-investigators.
In addition to parenting skills and support groups, researchers have identified a variety of other services and polices that can reduce the caregiving burden and improve the well-being of children and grandparents. These including respite care, economic assistance, workplace flexibility, and housing that can accommodate multigenerational and grandparent-headed families.